A major new exhibition at Denmark’s National Gallery SMK sets out to re-examine Danish art’s so-called Golden Age, contextualising it between a series of cataclysmic events.
Set in rather more sumptuous surroundings than most exhibitions (carpeted floors, don’t you know), this show is an absolute feast for the eyes.
Christen Købke’s views of the Copenhagen Lakes, Danish Arcadia from JT Lundbye, artists painting each other at work, records of sojourns abroad in Italy and further afield, and art as a national political statement – it’s all here.
The exhibition has been set up in a deliberate attempt to call to mind the salons of the period, where educated people met to discuss the issues of the day and ideas were exchanged across disciplines.
Prosperity and progress
It is perhaps not surprising that Danes have long considered the period encompassing the first half of the 19th century as a Golden Age. One of the main drivers was the growth of an educated, politically active and increasingly wealthy middle-class. Some became patrons of the arts, and we see portraits of them and their families reflecting their status.
An example of this type of picture is Wilhelm Marstrand’s ‘Portrait of Otto Marstrand’s two daughters and their West Indian nanny Justina Antoine in the Frederiksberg Gardens’ from 1857. This snapshot of domestic life also shows that, even then, immigrants were not unknown.
Clouds on the horizon
But the Golden Age came at a price: upon entering the first room you see a ‘black box’ in front of you. Inside are pictures of the bombardment of Copenhagen and a timeline listing Danish disasters such as the Battle of Copenhagen in 1801, the bombardment by the British in 1807, the 1813 state bankruptcy, and the secession of Norway in 1814.
This is mirrored by a similar box at the very end of the exhibition on the war of 1864 against Prussia that resulted in Denmark losing the duchies of Schleswig, Holstein and Saxe-Lauenburg – a trauma that was to have far-reaching effects on the national psyche.
Dialogue and synergy
However, art often seems to thrive in adversity and the period between these events led to an unprecedented flowering in Denmark – as well as in the study of science, literature, history, archaeology and natural sciences. Among the more bizarre pictures on display is Wilhelm Bendz’s ‘Tumour in regio patellaris’ (1829), which shows a close-up of a colossal tumour on a man’s knee.
Another contributing factor was the development of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts and through it a general belief in the benefits of art for everyone (although women were not permitted to study there). One of the few women who did manage to make an impression in an almost overwhelmingly male world was Elisabeth Jerichau Baumann. ‘Mermaid’, depicting the Hans Christian Andersen character, is an extremely powerful and somewhat disquieting image that looks strikingly modern. It caused a lot of controversy in 1847, the year of its release.
Documenting the great outdoors
One consequence of the first round of catastrophic events was an increasing desire to forge a new national identity by going out and painting Denmark’s landscapes and natural monuments. JT Lundbye was one of the finest exponents of this school. However, his pictures are not always completely true to life; he painted the Danish landscape as he thought it should look in an ideal world.
This process is shown in ‘A Danish coast, view from Kitnæas on Roskilde Fjord’ (see top picture). The large finished painting shows significant differences to the preliminary pen sketch and oil sketch. The cliffs become more monumental and imposing as the work progresses.
Home and away
Following the lead of the sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen and others, young Danish artists headed for Rome and other places in Italy. A number of the works on display reflect their fascination with classical architecture and Italian peasant life.
One of the more striking pictures from abroad is actually from Sweden: Wilhelm Marstrand’s ‘Churchgoers arriving by boat at the parish church of Leksand on Siljan Lake’. This large painting from 1853, simply teeming with life with everyone in their Sunday best, is a tribute to the piety of times.
Finally, for anyone familiar with Copenhagen it is interesting to see how little some of the places in town have changed! Salomon Henriques’ ‘Højbro Plads, a Market Place in Copenhagen’, Købke’s pictures of the gate at Kastellet – and with a little imagination his views of Østerbro and the Copenhagen Lakes – all are still largely recognisable.
With pictures borrowed from Danish galleries as well as Sweden and Germany, this is the largest exhibition of Golden Age painting in Denmark to date – and very highly recommended indeed.